Jottings, Scraps and Doodles

Adam Shatz

  • Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory by Patrick Wilcken
    Bloomsbury, 375 pp, £30.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 7475 8362 2

Austere, prickly, solitary, Claude Lévi-Strauss is the least fashionable, and most influential, of the postwar French theorists. Lévi-Straussians are a nearly extinct tribe in Anglo-American universities, far outnumbered by Foucauldians, Derrideans and Deleuzians. But, in a paradox he might have enjoyed, his imprint has been deeper. Like the Amerindian myths he anatomised in obsessive detail in the four-volume Mythologiques, his ideas have seeped into our thinking. From the significance of the incest taboo, to the reasons we roast or boil our food, to the distinctions we draw between nature and culture, the way we think about behaviour and the mind has been indelibly shaped by the writings that bear his signature.

I say ‘bear his signature’ because Lévi-Strauss saw himself as a spiritual medium more than an author. ‘I don’t have the feeling that I write my books,’ he said. ‘I have the feeling that my books get written through me … I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity.’ In Tristes Tropiques, his memoir of his fieldwork among the Indians of Brazil, he called the self ‘hateful’. Everything he wrote aimed to puncture the notions of will and agency that cluster around the human subject. The critique of the subject was central to structuralism, the school of thought he helped to found. He existed, he wrote in the memoir’s closing paragraphs, not as an individual, but as ‘the stake … in the struggle between another society, made up of several thousand nerve cells lodged in the anthill of my skull, and my body, which serves as its robot’. His work, he said, was just as mortal as he was: it would be ‘childish’ to think he could escape the ‘common fate’.

His style of structural anthropology long ago fell out of favour among ethnographers; its mathematical diagrams of cultural rules now look like relics of some mid-20th-century technocratic fantasy. Yet Lévi-Strauss, who died two years ago at the age of 100, is in no danger of being forgotten. He is as much an icon as the brand of jeans with which he was often confused when he was teaching in New York in the 1940s. (At the suggestion of his employers he eventually adopted the ‘mutilated’ name Claude L. Strauss.) But Patrick Wilcken has set himself an unenviable task, because Lévi-Strauss was the embodiment of pudeur, an exaggerated, almost prudish sense of discretion. He was good at keeping secrets, and at dodging interviewers’ questions. (The interview, he said, was a ‘detestable genre’.) Wilcken, who met him in 2005, found his glacial reserve impossible to crack and detected ‘a kind of emptiness, an isolation’: ‘In the end, the mask had barely moved.’ To his credit, he doesn’t try to remove the mask, or to compete with Tristes Tropiques. Instead, he has written an absorbing, scrupulous account of Lévi-Strauss’s career, recapturing both the grandeur and the idiosyncrasy of his intellectual project.

It was the mind, and what he considered to be its formal patterns – particularly as revealed in art and storytelling – that fascinated Lévi-Strauss. Reading this biography one sometimes wonders whether he might in the future be thought of as a theorist of cognition and aesthetics who only happened, because of disciplinary prejudice, to take tribal cultures as his material. Like Freud, he believed that the deeper truths of culture are hidden from consciousness, lodged in a subterranean stratum of the brain the interpreter can never fully excavate. He came to believe that anthropologists would have to team up with neuroscientists to explain the mysterious patterns of behaviour: a view, Wilcken suggests, that ‘presaged the cognitive revolution in the social sciences’.

More comfortable in the library than in the field, he was indifferent to what he called the ‘vast empirical stew’ of life in tribal societies. The truth is he saw little of it: he conducted only about eight months of fieldwork in Brazil, spent no more than a couple of weeks at a time with any of the tribes he encountered, and didn’t go back there until 1985, when he accompanied Mitterrand on an official visit. Edmund Leach spoke for many Anglo-American anthropologists when he complained in 1970 that Lévi-Strauss’s analyses were ‘very far removed from the dirt and squalor that are the field anthropologist’s normal stamping ground’.

But Lévi-Strauss believed he could see better from a distance. It was in Paris – at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, the research institute he established in 1960, or in his sumptuous flat in the 16th arrondissement – that he did his real work, slipping into an imaginary world, reading the works of other ethnographers, conducting a kind of séance with his collection of tribal art. As aides à penser, he would listen to the Ring Cycle or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which he believed borrowed unconsciously from the structures of ancient myth. His aim was to discern the unconscious logic of the mind: what he called, in its raw, ‘unspoiled’ state, ‘la pensée sauvage’. Lévi-Strauss, Susan Sontag claimed in 1963, had ‘invented the profession of the anthropologist as a total occupation’. Whether it was anthropology at all is debatable; that it was a remarkable effort to ask the Big Questions is not. Leach grudgingly conceded that Lévi-Strauss shared ‘with Freud a most remarkable capacity for leading us all unaware into the innermost recesses of our secret emotions’, even if that made him a ‘poet in the laboratory’ rather than a social scientist.

Anthropology, Lévi-Strauss wrote, ‘does not abandon the hope of one day awakening among the natural sciences, at the hour of the Last Judgment’. But Wilcken suggests he might have preferred to wake up a novelist or, better yet, a composer. Like his teacher Marcel Mauss, he was the product of a uniquely French ‘amalgam of arts and ideas’. His work owed much of its aura to its juxtaposition of the aesthetic and scientific, the rational and the mystical. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as seductive had it not been for his style, which bridged what he considered the great divide in Western consciousness between the ‘intelligible’ and the ‘sensible’ – what can be apprehended by the senses. The little time that he spent in the field yielded some memorable passages, not just on customs and ritual, but on landscape, food and smell, which he described with extraordinary vividness and sensuality, as in his account of eating grubs from rotten tree trunks: ‘From the body spurted a whitish, fatty substance, which I managed to taste after some hesitation; it had the consistency and delicacy of butter, and the flavour of coconut milk.’

Whether or not Lévi-Strauss was an ‘artist manqué’, as Wilcken sees him, the aesthetic impulse ran deep. He was born into a family of artists. His great-grandfather was a violinist who performed for Napoléon III; his father, Raymond, a portrait painter. Lévi-Strauss père barely made ends meet, but he saved up to take his only child to see the Ring Cycle and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Claude drew, painted, took photographs, even wrote a trio for two violins and piano.

His maternal grandfather had been the rabbi of Versailles, but Judaism, he said, was ‘no more than a memory’ at home. Still, as a Jew born in 1908, he felt the impact of the Dreyfus Affair. In a series of interviews conducted with Didier Eribon in the late 1980s and collected in De près et de loin, he spoke of being bullied at school, and of his embattled sense of difference as a member of a national community that didn’t fully accept him. It’s tempting to imagine that this alienation was what led him to the Mato Grosso, and inspired his radical defence of the equality of cultures in Race and History, his 1952 paper commissioned by Unesco. Yet he was also a fierce advocate of assimilation in France, and instinctively hostile to cultural métissage. By the mid-1950s, hardly a decade after being chased out of Vichy France, he warned that his country was becoming ‘Muslim’ in its rigidity and bookishness: ‘I cannot easily forgive Islam,’ he wrote, ‘for showing me our own image, and for forcing me to realise to what extent France is beginning to resemble a Muslim country.’

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